Book Talk – Will the real North Korea please stand up?

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By Nathan Worcester

Like almost everyone else, political scientist Andrei Lankov, a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University, is a harsh critic of North Korea’s government. Still, in the midst of nuclear tests and Dennis Rodman’s inexplicable trip to Pyongyang (Rodman now claims that the FBI wants him to work as an informant), Lankov considers the regime brilliant. “They outsmarted Russians, they outsmarted [the] Chinese, they outsmarted Americans,” said Lankov to the overflow crowd who had come to the Seminary Co-Op on April 22; he was discussing his new book, “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.”

With the end of Soviet sponsorship, explained Lankov, North Korea now extorts American and South Korean aid by threatening those very countries with nukes. North Koreans “have to be brilliant,” said Lankov, “because they have essentially ruined their own economy and don’t know how to repair it.”

But how much longer can they be brilliant without being competent?

Recent events in the region have certainly been dramatic. After a February nuclear test, North Korea has escalated its rhetoric, even declaring war on the United States. Some are taking their threats seriously. A professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School asserted that there is a 70-80% likelihood that war will break out in Korea.

Lankov disagrees. Like the U. of C.’s Bruce Cumings, who wrote a recent article for The Nation advocating skepticism about North Korea’s threats, Lankov counters the regime’s histrionic rhetoric with reason. In a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, Lankov reminded his American audience that in South Korea, the North’s most realistic target, people aren’t exactly running scared: “By now South Koreans understand Pyongyang’s logic and know North Korea is highly unlikely to make good on its gothic threats.”

At the lecture, Lankov elaborated on North Korea’s history in the thick Russian accent that he joked made him sound like a Bond villain. Under founder Kim Il-Sung, North Korea was a somewhat unwilling Soviet puppet with a bloated but effective bureaucracy and heavy restrictions on tunable radio access. Unfortunately, its inefficient economy was heavily reliant on Soviet and Chinese subsidies. With the end of the USSR and the curtailment of Chinese funding, industrial output likely plummeted (few reliable statistics are available) and a famine that killed hundreds of thousands or millions ravaged the country. Now North Korea uses its nuclear program to secure the aid that will keep it from collapsing for another year.

Lankov strove to present a nuanced picture of North Korea, including things that have improved. For example, the people are no longer starving. Instead, many responded to the shortages of the mid-nineties by trading items that began as humanitarian aid, essentially reinventing markets in the process. Unfortunately, the greater importance of money has brought greater corruption.

Lankov also emphasized that Kim Jong-Il, though repressive, presided over a period of legal and social liberalization. Kim Il-Sung’s notorious “family responsibility principle,” whereby any family members living at the same address as a political criminal were sent to prison as well, was loosened under his son.

Attitudes among the people are changing as well. South Korean popular culture is leaking across the border, though the government attributes it to China, and computers are becoming more common. Lankov also had access to some North Korean functionaries who expressed cynicism about the government. “In the past,” said Lankov, “it was not like that.”

Lankov is pessimistic about North Korea’s future. Despite pressure from China, the regime itself cannot advocate needed economic reforms. “If they start reforming the country like the Chinese did,” said Lankov, “their people will learn about South Korean prosperity” and lose their fear of the government (Of course, it remains to be seen whether “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” will lead to political change in China).

He sees two likely outcomes for North Korea: either it will become a Chinese puppet state or the two Koreas will reunite. In the short term, reunification would not help the people of North Korea, most of whom are too poor and poorly trained to do well in a joint state. “Who is going to hire a North Korean doctor?” Lankov asked.

As the current brouhaha dies down, Lankov’s informed pessimism is worth keeping in mind. Though sabers are rattled every year, the real North Korean crisis may take decades to come and decades to fix.